Afternoon, in my studio
Before I try to dial up Tony at his aunt's house in Banaue, I've got a few thoughts to share.
First, it's been quite something to try to return to this normal life. I went somewhere -- somewhere incredible -- during the last several weeks. Every place I visited I saw people stepping back, looking at me as though I were different -- crazed or changed or maniac or perhaps just shimmeringly full of my own self -- and I liked that a lot. It was a space I've never occupied for that length of time before. I hit two free throws once that won a basketball game in college and I was high for a few hours after that. This time the feeling lasted for... well, I'm not sure it's gone yet. The few women who ever looked at me stopped looking a long time ago, but they've been looking at me again lately. More than a few. I swear it.
One downer: It's hard to look around at the life I lead (in the same atmosphere we all live) and not see how obvious it is that one can not continue to breathe this polluted environment (and I'm not just talking about the air) and still be in touch with the higher realms. Sometimes, coming back is the only way to find out where you've been. For more than a month I lost track of the Giants (and all sports teams), never watched a TV show or a movie, never glanced at a newspaper. Now I find myself itching back to see if Barry Bonds hit a home run last night, how's the Dow doing (exactly the same as when I quit watching it!), and now I even know about this Condit guy. As if any of that actually means anything! I know that if I read the papers, watch the news for a few days, these ridiculous pointless things will somehow take me back over -- take me down. What do you do? What do you do? This is my life, our lives. Fish don't know water exists, I'm told, until they're out of it. We take all our media for granted -- actually we regard them as indispensable -- until they're gone. This week I've been thinking: Who needs 'em?
And diet: Tony was used to eating rice and vegetables and (usually) chicken three times a day. While he was here we both ate rice at least twice a day usually. (It was hard to find rice for breakfast around here -- we wound up taking home Chinese carry-out most nights and having that in the morning.) And we almost never had dessert -- although Tony did see the wisdom of a Hδagen-Dazs bar toward the end. I lost about 8-9 pounds without even thinking about it. And, in spite of my lack of sleep, I felt very healthy. Check me out in a month -- I'll bet I've gained those pounds back.
The night after Tony left I received a telephone call from Dennis Korkos. Dennis is the head of the Ramped Taxi Association, an unpaid, thankless, three-day-old-turd of a position which he has faithfully occupied since I enticed him to succeed me at it about a year ago. I used to be heavily involved in taxicab politics, but in the past year I've taken a big step away. Dennis and a couple of guys who, like me, drive ramp (wheelchair accessible) taxis have been trying to shepherd an important piece of ramp-taxi legislation through the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. While I was gone they strode confidently into a committee meeting where they had 8 supervisors' votes promised to them. But Supervisor Gavin Newsom -- whom I like, who has been an ally of us ramp drivers in the past, who is as forceful and persuasive and charismatic and as handsome a politician as you'll ever see, and who will someday be mayor of San Francisco unless he leapfrogs to some higher office first -- came to that committee meeting, took the floor, and, I am told, tore everyone a new rear exit possibility. He lambasted us ramp drivers in a way that I found... well, not in line with reality, and he succeeded in getting the committee to not even vote on our proposal that day. There had to be further discussion before a vote could take place, Supervisor Newsom insisted. And he promised to fight our legislation with everything he had.
When Dennis called on Monday, he asked me to come and add my two cents' worth at a meeting on Tuesday with Supervisor Newsom and newly elected Supervisor Sophie Maxwell. When he told me the things that had been said about we ramp cab drivers I said I certainly would come. Now this past month may certainly have changed Tony's life -- but on Tuesday night I noticed a certain change in myself. Two months ago I would have been extremely nervous about this. But in the 24 hours between Dennis's call and the time I headed off for the meeting, I barely gave it a second thought. On the drive toward City Hall I noticed that I was heading to a meeting with a politician I had cowered in front of in the past, but now I somehow had not the slightest flicker of nervousness or fear. If only I had spent the afternoon drinking I'd have fit the Jimmy Buffet description of the guy in the bear song: "I was God's own drunk...and a fearless man." But I went into that meeting without a drop and without any rehearsal, and I spoke my mind forcefully, clearly, eloquently, with passion, without stammering, and when we walked out of there an hour later -- everyone, including Supervisor Newsom, laughing -- I am sure I had logged more mouth time than anyone else in the room. And my guys had gotten Supervisor Newsom's agreement on everything they/we had been asking for. Supervisor Maxwell called from her end of the table down to Supervisor Newsom's end, "I've got it in writing right here, Supervisor. You said you'll go along with whatever I think is best." And he confirmed this. As we had dinner across the street that evening, the other ramp drivers told me that they had had a pre-meeting strategy conference with Supervisor Maxwell in which they had all agreed that they really had no leverage, no power, and they would take whatever compromise they could get from the meeting. But they walked away with everything single thing they'd asked for. I, clearly, was the difference.
Now, the point here isn't how great I've suddenly become. I will relearn cowering all too soon, I'm sure. The point is what an incredible place I've been to and what an impression it has left on me and on everyone around me. And it all started by giving something away. Something big. Something almost unimaginable. It unleashed a torrent of power and energy in me and in everyone who has come in contact with this adventure of Tony's and mine. I'm in awe -- and I fear this slip-sliding away that I can feel happening. I'm looking forward to my 6:00 phone call almost desperately -- I need another hit of Tony....
The point, again: There is a river of energy and power that we have at our access and we numb ourselves into disbelieving its existence. Kurt Vonnegut said that there is an ocean of money out there and, once we find out how, we can go dip a bucket into it whenever we want. Well, I haven't ever dipped into that ocean, but I've seen it now. I know it's there. How could I not have noticed all the love and support and resources that people have been eager to give me and Tony? I've seen the river, I've seen the ocean. I'll go back to the peaks and valleys a changed man.
The point, again, said another way:
In the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Butch and Sundance go to apply for jobs as payroll guards for a mine. The grizzled old mine owner throws a coin into the dirt about fifteen feet in front of Sundance, and says, "Hit that."
Sundance glares at him.
Mine owner: "I just want to know, can you shoot? Shoot!"
Sundance draws his gun reluctantly, takes careful aim, fires once. Dust kicks up -- not particularly close to the coin. Sundance grimaces. Butch grimaces. Mine owner grimaces, turns away. The interview is over.
Sundance calls after him: "Can I move?"
Mine owner turns around: "Move! What the hell you mean, move?"
In one graceful motion, Sundance draws, spins, drops to a knee, blasts the coin across the dirt lot once, twice, and spins his gun neatly back into its holster.
"I'm better," he says, "when I move."
Tony left Sunday night, and since then I have awakened on five mornings and from five afternoon naps. Every single time my first thoughts have been almost panicky: "Where's Tony? Is he all right? Does he need anything? Where is he?" Now that he's gone I realize that these were also my first thoughts upon waking while he was here, but then I didn't notice them, because then they were appropriate. I was responsible for him. And that responsibility, that reality, sank in more deeply than I realized. I didn't notice how strong the programming was.
On Tuesday afternoon (before the meeting at City Hall) I was supposed to pick up Sarah at her summer preschool program at 3 o'clock. In three years I've never been more than a minute or two late. This time I lay down for a nap with two alarms set for 2:45. At 3:13 I finally heard them. I stumbled out of bed clueless, flailing at the alarms, my first thought: "Where's Tony?" I turned off the shrieking clocks. I thought: "What are Tony and I supposed to be doing today? Do we have a doctor's appointment? Dentist? A party? An interview? What day is it?" And then: "Sarah! School! Oh, no! Where's Tony? He'll have to come with me. Where is he?" I looked out the kitchen window for the figure in the dark cowboy hat -- maybe he'd be drinking a beer on the back steps? Nope. I started toward the back door to go out and call his name and tell him to jump in the car with me...and then, fully 60 seconds after I'd awakened, I remembered: "He's gone. Long gone. He flew off two nights ago!"
Sarah and the last two teachers -- Charlene and Madeline -- were waiting patiently for me at school.
After the meeting at City Hall I drove over to the Service! Taxi lot. No one was around, but I saw my old friend, cab 2443, parked in the lot. I unlocked the gate and went inside. The driver's side window was rolled down and I reached in and popped the trunk latch. There was my case of San Miguel Beer (gift from the Embassy party), both my tents, two sleeping bags, ground cloths, sleeping pads -- all the camping gear Tony and I had never gotten around to using. "Can't do everything." I loaded all that and more (maps, atlases, books) into my car, and then checked the cab's glove compartment -- two empty Winston cartons and an empty pouch of Levi Garrett chewing tobacco -- until three weeks ago I'd never heard of the stuff.
Back to this "giving" thing. I know it sounds corny, but what can I say? My brother Grant is the straightest guy in the whole world -- ex-Marine, UCLA Law School, ex-US State Department, now head of internal security for an enormous brokerage house whose name I won't mention. Rhonda says that if she's ever in a plane wreck, a coup, or some other emergency, she wants Grant beside her (I'm sure she means: "If you aren't around, Brad!"). But Grant saw a ghost once. It made a believer out of him. All it takes is once.
And while I've long been a believer in lots of things, I believe I'm now a born-again believer in believing. Every hokey cliche seems as obvious as the sun to me these days. It is indeed more blessed to give than to receive. (Or at least as blessed -- I'm not sure I can really make that call.) This feeling I've experienced makes me want to do something truly useful with my life. Makes me want to find the place where my talents might best be used, or where there is the most crying need in the world, and throw myself at it like it was a plate glass window, the only way out of a burning building....
But how does one make a living? The eternal question.
Consider Travelers' Tales dilemma. They printed 10,000 copies of my book in hardback last September. After all this publicity (from the S.F. Chronicle to the Christian Science Monitor to three appearances on All Things Considered, two on the CBC, one on the BBC, plus 35 or so appearances in 15-20 cities around the country) they've still got 500 copies left. Imagine how many they'd have sold without that barrage of publicity -- and you can see why people say the publishing industry is a hard go. It is.
Travelers' Tales sold the paperback rights to my book to Ballantine (a division of Random House). Next spring it will come out as a paperback with the Random House sales force behind it. It figures to sell a few more copies at that time. In the meantime, between now and next April, how many hardback copies of the book do you think Travelers' Tales might sell? Between them and me, we've probably given away 500 copies to reviewers, friends, crashers at beach parties, which means that Travelers' Tales has sold roughly 9,000 copies in ten months (5,000 of them in the first month). Sales have slowed to a trickle. It's the 25,000th best seller on Amazon these days -- last November it was briefly (about 10 minutes), number 735. Is it likely that Travelers' Tales will sell 1,000 more copies between now and next April, when almost anyone who is buying the book will almost certainly buy the paperback? Is it likely that they will sell 2,000 copies?
But here's the kicker: If they print any less than 3,000 copies, they are guaranteed to lose money if they don't sell every one of them. And in the seven plus years of Travelers' Tales existence they have not yet had a year where they broke even. They have lost money every year. They must be sick of losing money. And unless Oprah comes along, the chances of them selling 3,000 copies of my book between now and next April are almost nil.
So, Mom. If you make just one more thousand-copy order you're going to put Travelers' Tales into an awkward position -- and I can't wait to see how they'll deal with it.
How would you?
Another struggling outfit that deserves mention -- www.bootsnall.com. I've been a subscriber (free) for the past year or so. Every day they post a story on their web site (it is emailed automatically to subscribers) written by some traveler somewhere in the world. And before Tony's trip I bought a 31-day trip insurance policy through a provider on their site -- the Unicard Travel Association. It was the premium package -- it would have covered just about anything that happened to Tony in those 31 days -- it cost $287. I knew we wouldn't need it, but I felt better having it. I stopped by the Bootsnall home office (it's more home than office) in Eugene last fall when I was touring and we went out for coffee. They're a bunch (four) of very nice guys. To make ends meet, they all have menial jobs (delivering newspapers, folding towels in a health club), but they recently turned down a $250,000 buyout offer -- they thought it would compromise what they were trying to do. Their hearts are in a good place. Check them out. www.bootsnall.com
OK, I'm ready to dial Banaue now. Here are the questions I want to ask Tony:
How are you, kaibigan ["friend" in Tagalog]?
Did that cold that kicked in on your last day go away?
How is your back?
How's Rita? The kids? Your folks?
Those 21 $100 bills I gave you -- were they safe in your sock or your belt or wherever you put them?
When will you buy the trike? (Early on in his trip he thought he'd buy it the day he got back. Later he thought he might just give it a month, and then, when all the excitement of his return had died down, rev it right back up again.)
Did you have a party yet?
Did you sort out the title to your land yet? (Tony bought the land from a guy who died shortly thereafter. There are many witnesses to the sale, but so far Tony hasn't attained a deed. I told him that when he got a deed I would start figuring out how to come up with the less than $2,000 he figures it will take to finish off his house into a four-room lodge. That Makita circular saw has a specific future in Banaue.)
Did you find new sunglasses?
Did anyone recognize you? What'd they think of the hat, the jacket?
Did any reporters hound you at the airport?
Do you miss America?
Aren't you glad now that we went to the Embassy?
Do the videotapes we made work on VCRs in Banaue?
Have you found a tourist who will help you check your email? Have you received any?
Remember that woman at Harbin Hot Springs? Yeah, her....
Well, that ought to do it...let's give him a call.
In the twelve years we communicated Tony never told me that he had an aunt two-and-a-half miles away who had a telephone. In the Philippines it costs something to receive even an incoming call, and I guess Tony never felt comfortable asking his aunt to let me call. But he made arrangements to call Rita at his aunt's, and now he's stuck talking to me once in a while, too. Tonight Tony and I talked for about half an hour. The phone line went dead five times, and I called back each time.
A happy-and-relieved-sounding Rita ("Most Americans," Tony told me when he was here, "they call her Reed-uh. Yes, you too!" I've since been careful to try to call her Ree-TA) answered the first call, and the first thing I asked was, "How are you, Rita?" There are a couple of subplots that I haven't been at liberty to divulge -- yet, anyway -- and mine was more than a casual question. I was very glad to hear Rita say -- and from her tone of voice I knew it was true -- "I am fine."
Me: "And how is Tony?" Tony had left San Francisco with a first-day cold and a backache that really worried me.
Rita: "Oh, he is fine. Let me get him."
"Oh, Tony! I've missed you."
"I have missed you! I have missed America."
His voice was the voice of a full-blown-cold sufferer. But he said he was OK, and his backache had completely disappeared.
He said he was, in fact, as I had promised him, more famous than he had expected. (I typed some while he talked.) "To be honest, every day I have visitor at home, people -- everybody here in Banaue talk about Tony -- they come to see Tony, who is famous in America. Everybody read about it in the Philippine Inquirer, front page. Almost every day, every night I think about our good trip together and the people I met and I even think -- I apologize that I did not say thank you to Jamie [Jamie Maddox of Service! Taxis -- our paths never crossed after our return to SF]. Please do it for me -- and I wanted to thank you -- to thank everybody who we know very well. Please tell everyone in America thank you. I talked to my father yesterday -- he reminded me how I should make sure to say this."
I told him that everyone here who had come in contact with him had had all the thanks they needed. Meeting him, hearing about him, was enough. I emphasized how absolutely spectacularly he had...performed?... here. Who else in the world could have handled everything I threw at him? (Well, maybe Michael from Kenya. Or Honest George from Tanzania. Or how about Kerala Baba from Varanasi?) I asked Tony if all the attention at home was a little much.
"No, it's OK really. But sometimes I'm a bit exhausted. Every day we have relatives arrive -- sometimes I am not here, and my wife, she tell them everything -- she has heard it many times now -- and we can show them the videos. Almost everybody in town says I'm a very famous man -- all these relatives are proud of me -- "Tony came in America and became a bit famous there." Sometimes...now that I am here -- at least I have done it, you know! Remember I told you I'm not going to realize how nice the trip is until later. Maybe that's the last time -- I hope it happens again. Sometimes we don't know -- you know."
I asked him if he'd checked his email.
He said that he hadn't yet found a tourist to help him with that. With all the garbage in the news from the southern Philippines, tourism in Banaue has slowed to a trickle. He said that in the four days since he's been home he has seen only three tourists. (This is a monumental drought! For those of you who don't know, there is a Muslim group in the southern Philippines --there are 7,000 islands in the Philippines -- that has been abducting tourists for ransom and this negative news has severely affected the whole country. But Banaue is so far removed from the south. It's as though people in Asia heard about a murder or kidnapping in Nova Scotia and decided to stay away from San Francisco. Go to the Philippines -- go trekking with Tony. You won't regret it.)
When he was here I was a bit dismayed that he didn't know numeric shoe sizes for his family. "But I know," he said. "For Rita it is this much" -- he spread his fingers wide and pointed to the span from the tip of his thumb to the tip of his middle finger -- "plus a little." He had similar estimates for the five kids. David and Marilee Muchow had paid for Tony to select boots for Rita and either boots or shoes for all the kids. Tonight Tony said, "Please tell David that all the shoes and boots fit perfectly. Yes, everyone. Perfectly. No, I'm not just saying that. Perfectly. Everyone."
Tony's cousin in Manila made off with one of the two bottles of Jim Beam whiskey that I'd sent him home with -- Tony said he couldn't go back without some -- and his brother in Banaue had grabbed the other. The woman who cashes my checks for him at the department store appreciated the bottle of California red wine he'd brought her (her request). I sent back something like 25 bars of Trader Joe's bittersweet chocolate bars (large). "All gone," said Tony. "You could send 20 crates. Never enough. There are so many people. All gone."
When we were in Kansas City Tony bought a battery for the Seiko watch that Jacques and Julie St. John had given him the night before in Denver. For the remaining two weeks of the trip Tony was nervous about resetting the time -- he thought he might break the watch. So, as the trip moved on to other time zones, whenever I -- watchless me -- would want to know the time, I would ask him, "What time is it in Kansas City?" Tonight he told me he had done the brave thing and reset his watch for Banaue time, where it was almost 10 a.m.
I forgot to ask about the circular saw Daryt Frank bought for Tony's carpenter, but Tony did say that everything had gotten through, so I'm sure we'll hear about it soon.
He said he's going to have the small party soon -- "today or tomorrow" -- I guess you don't need advance invitations in a village of 500. He's going to get the deed to his land soon. We're going to try to talk again next Friday.
I can hardly wait.